“Food First but Not Always Food Only”: Recommendations for Using Dietary Supplements in Sport

in International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism

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Graeme L. CloseResearch Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences, Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool, United Kingdom

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Andreas M. KasperResearch Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences, Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool, United Kingdom

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Neil P. WalshResearch Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences, Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool, United Kingdom

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Ronald J. MaughanSchool of Medicine, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, United Kingdom

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The term “food first” has been widely accepted as the preferred strategy within sport nutrition, although there is no agreed definition of this and often limited consideration of the implications. We propose that food first should mean “where practically possible, nutrient provision should come from whole foods and drinks rather than from isolated food components or dietary supplements.” There are many reasons to commend a food first strategy, including the risk of supplement contamination resulting in anti-doping violations. However, a few supplements can enhance health and/or performance, and therefore a food only approach could be inappropriate. We propose six reasons why a food only approach may not always be optimal for athletes: (a) some nutrients are difficult to obtain in sufficient quantities in the diet, or may require excessive energy intake and/or consumption of other nutrients; (b) some nutrients are abundant only in foods athletes do not eat/like; (c) the nutrient content of some foods with established ergogenic benefits is highly variable; (d) concentrated doses of some nutrients are required to correct deficiencies and/or promote immune tolerance; (e) some foods may be difficult to consume immediately before, during or immediately after exercise; and (f) tested supplements could help where there are concerns about food hygiene or contamination. In these situations, it is acceptable for the athlete to consider sports supplements providing that a comprehensive risk minimization strategy is implemented. As a consequence, it is important to stress that the correct terminology should be “food first but not always food only.”

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